My first post about China was about the calm parts of the trip — quiet moments where I could enjoy my surroundings or ponder my growing unfamiliarity with Mandarin. Typically, this gave way to a far more bustling and intrusive realization about my native country. There is a sense of raw energy when traveling around China that isn’t as ubiquitously prevalent in the US or even Europe; it’s urgency and claustrophobia and anxiety and curiosity and ambition all stirred into one giant hotpot.
The Shanghai skyline seems innocent, with a central district almost nonchalantly bookended by color. In the midst of the glowing structures is a mass of development. Impressively, less than three decades ago, this entire bank of the river area was flat, devoid of signs of international commerce. That’s a frightening amount of change; I’d even go so far as saying that Shanghai has modernized more in the last five years than in the ten years previous to that. What will happen in the next five years?
Compare the Shanghai skyline to that of Singapore. Though partially obscured by the Marina Bay Sands Resort, Singapore’s Central Business District is clean, organized, and mature in comparison to the ongoing construction and seemingly haphazard building placement in Shanghai. Singapore may be a tiny island relative to its population size, but its urban planning seems logical and calculated. In comparison, Shanghai is quickly catching up and eager to build a recognizable skyline of its own — even if it appears slightly ungainly at the moment and if it seems implications of such a move are unknown or unconsidered.
It’s not just the sprouting buildings, however, that show the ripples of tremendous growth in Shanghai. The number of people, and specifically the size of the traveling-touring public, has also increased. The Shanghai 外滩 (wài tān, or Bund when translated) runs along the west bank of the Huang Pu river and in 2009 was still under construction. There wasn’t much to see then. Five years later, I was astounded at the attendance on the bank. Most waterfronts qui donnent sur (French; “look out at” or “have a view of”) a skyline have a fair number of visitors, but this was shoulder-room-only for maybe two rows deep along the nearly 1 mile waterfront. Nowhere in the US — or the world for that matter — have I seen this many people whose primary goal was to look across a river.
In hindsight, this should not have surprised me. On my first full day in China, my aunt took my parents and I to 鼓浪屿, which has no direct translation but is spelled phoenetically as Gǔ Làng Yǔ. A small island off the coast of Xiamen, its most popular attraction is likely the Sunlight Rock (日光岩). At the top of the outcrop is a viewing platform maybe 10 ft by 10 ft. It was so packed with people that I didn’t manage to get them all in focus with an impromptu over-the-head shot (instead focusing only on… ding! Someone’s hair!). Furthermore, the platform was accessible via a 2 ft wide staircase, making the climb up my first lesson in a long time to pushing and shoving. On my first first day in China, the discipline so associated with Asian cultures began to evaporate — and not because of the stifling heat.
This experience set the tone for several other tourist locations that were similarly crowded. The day I visited Yangzhou, the 五亭桥 (Wu Ting Qiao) had its fair share of visitors and one lone tourist flag visible, but the heat apparently kept the masses away; cooler days apparently draw a larger gathering, so much so that the boat tours running on the lake end up completely selling out.
The tourist trade in China is an interesting one, one that I hadn’t really explored until this trip. Large cities are positively bustling by 6 AM, and the gathering points for short, bus excursions to nearby places contribute to the din. The buses are everywhere and come in all sizes. There’s so many of them that parking is based more on available location than a marked grid. There was no 5Sing evident in any of the many parking lots for landed people ferries.
My visits to Yangzhou and Qian Dao Hu were with such a bus excursion. Prior to arriving at Qian Dao Hu, we spent some time in the 宋城, phonetically Sòng Chéng and meaning City of the Song [Dynasty]. It’s a theme park commemorating the Song Dynasty, and most of the streets are heavily commercialized behind their facade of antique wares and passed-down traditions. There’s a show at the theme park that goes though Hangzhou’s history, and like the rest of the attraction is a bit overcooked. To its credit, it maintains an intense level of energy throughout the 90 minute show and even has water features and impressive pyrotechnics on stage. Subtracting from the play was a quiet murmuring from the audience throughout the entire show. Respect (or silence, at a minimum) toward the performers didn’t really seem understood. Perhaps it’s because discussion during the show suggests interest in the show material? Unclear.
After departing Hangzhou for Qian Dao Hu, the very first destination was that of a pearl shop. The attention to such trinkets was startling. There are a lot of people in China; it’s difficult to communicate just how much impact that makes on daily life, including what to do with hundreds of tourists.
As we left what I can only guess was a huge tourist trap for the area, we ventured from island to island on the Qian Dao Hu. Along one walkway, there was another gimmick: fish feeding. The holding tanks were too small for the fish to exercise, and with so many people I’m not sure even nonstop aerobics would do much to keep them from growing. Even the presence of a hand over the water sent the bright gold fish into a tizzy, all of them clamoring for a piece of nourishment.
This, then, is a curious and even ironic juxtaposition. On the one hand, China is a mystical, relaxing place. On the other, the sheer presence of the population makes it difficult to escape into that mystical, relaxing world. Add in the nuances of family hierarchy, strange interpersonal customs, and an exploding economy accessible to much of that nuanced, strange population and a perplexing picture of the addicting rush of rich history and ravenous ambition begins to emerge.
The difficult part to accept about this commotion is the lack of a consistent future outlook. The standard portrayals of China — growing, oppressive, foreign — are no doubt accurate to certain extents (as always, “it depends“), but the intricacies often seem ignored or unobserved. For instance, it’s takes stern measures to keep such a large population content and civil, but it’s impossible to hold back the reins on the opportunity that the large population offers. It’s easy to showcase the tremendous wealth emerging in China, but there is a significant working poor. The media does not reveal what is under the surface when it comes to China, potentially because the surface is a painting crafted over thousands of years and that took a finite infinity of decisions to render. As a result, we read that buildings emerge overnight and the middle class can become millionaires in less than a decade, but note that much of this growth has thus far come at a lack of consideration for the environment, others, and consequences that has made enjoying solitude for more than moments at a time difficult.
In December 2000, Airbus formally announced the A380 programme (then named the A3xx). The plane is taller and wider than any other in commercial service, but once inside, the passengers enjoy a level of comfort unprecedented in jumbo jets: low cabin noise, a wide cabin, and amenities or features not available on any other aircraft. Yet there’s no hassle-free way to load 500 passengers efficiently. Even with three jet bridges.
This is then in an odd, nerdy way a parallel to the yin-yang pair of calm and frenzy. There are people everywhere, effective traffic control is lacking, and adding more capacity for handling more commerce or passenger traffic just results in more congestion. The busier work life becomes, the more people travel to no-longer exotic locales to seek out solitude and solace alike.
To remedy its issues with the plane, Airbus has been actively reducing weight and increasing the performance of A380 to realize its maximum potential (and has been quite successful, I might add), and recently China seems to have begun understanding the implications of unbridled growth as it pertains to air pollution, safety, and urban infrastructure. There’s promise there.
The pushing and shoving and respect for stage performers? Not sure what it will take to straighten this thread in the Chinese social fabric.